There’s a secret to American thrillers that many people don’t realise: most of the problems in them are America’s fault. The world police are here to solve the cases that they themselves incepted, and they’re going to shoot through the red tape to get there! Remember: torture is bad when the bad guys do it, but it’s good when the good guys do it. That’s how you understand a competent but chest-beating, excessively violent film like American Assassin.
Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, TV’s Teen Wolf) attempts to be a terrorist-assassinating vigilante, but is pulled in by the CIA to join a black ops team. Under the tutelage of professional hard man Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming), Rapp travels across Europe to foil a nuclear plot that may be related to disenfranchised former government killer Ghost (Taylor Kitsch, True Detective).
Based on the 11th entry in the late Vince Flynn’s novel series, American Assassin is chronologically the first instalment of Rapp’s adventures. 26-year-old O’Brien, looking here more like a murderous vagrant than an international black ops expert, is expected to grow into the role. Given the none-too-subtle “America is great even if the villain is a direct symptom of our dedication to that greatness” message, it’s entirely possible that O’Brien can expect to book the role again; after all, every young actor needs a franchise. That this is a film that requires him to lightly waterboard a woman after slamming her into a wall doesn’t matter: from the film’s perspective, she deserved it — and so too did several other women during its course who serve as collateral damage.
With a script that passed through several hands before ending with Stephen Schiff (The Americans), American Assassin is composed largely of stock scenes and dialogue that no human would speak (“does that face bong a gong for you?”). Keaton somehow manages to keep a straight face for his role — and even brings some flair to it — but the rest of the actors often flounder. For Kitsch’s part, he brings a sort of passing of the torch to someone he hopes may have more success with blockbusters than he did. Why the characters have to advocate for the murder of the leaders — not even rogue elements — of actual countries that exist in this world and have strained relations with the United States seems dubious at best and dangerous at worst.
Director Michael Cuesta (Billions) knows how to hold his disparate pieces together, and even supplies a dynamic final sequence at sea, but he is more interested in maximising bloody carnage than providing actual flair to proceedings. The massacre at the start is somewhat gratuitous, and the film’s biggest fake-out is that it fails to engage in any of the standard issue fake-outs that the genre thrives upon. Again, Keaton is Cuesta’s greatest asset, and he is utilised liberally, but there are definitely stronger literary shooter legacies to draw upon.
American Assassin is a film that is very careful about judging some of its plot elements and ignoring the ethical ramifications of some of its others. There’s a lot of irresponsible politicking and the height of clichéd action dialogue. American Assassin is a decently made tour of Europe, utilising easy target villains to maximise cheering from audiences willing to accept diplomacy down the barrel of a gun… as long as the gun is held by a nominally handsome American man.
American Assassin opened in Australian cinemas on September 14, 2017.
Directed by: Michael Cuesta.
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar and Taylor Kitsch.